Collaboration is good. We know that.

So why is it, with all this technology available to us and a world seemingly infatuated with social apps, so many collaboration initiatives fail to meet expectations?

One of the most common mistakes strategists make is to assume that collaboration is an outcome. An end state. They assume that providing digital tools and modern working spaces will, unless the world caves in, result in an end state of workplace collaboration. 

Box ticked. All good.

Many organizations are discovering that this isn’t a given. All that new stuff, along with the clarion call to arms of "Now we can all collaborate!" can have a very different effect. Digital tools without a clear driver or vision can create an altogether new form of digital workflow chaos — too many tools, too many options. Adding additional complexity and confusion, without any clear sense of how this new way of working is helping anyone.

Collaboration is Not an Outcome

The thing we should remember is that collaboration is not an outcome per se, it’s a capability which can be applied to a business outcome, or goal. It’s that goal which, when properly communicated, powers adoption and uptake. 

It needs to be a vision that staff can easily understand and which means something to them in their individual roles, as well as tying in with the broader goals of the organization. It needs to give them a clear sense of what they are collaborating for.

A strong, clear vision for collaboration will change the perception of the tools you’ve provided. It will give those tools an intrinsically higher business purpose and value. No new hardware or software required, just a change in people’s perspective.

For example, what if the vision was built around innovation? At a recent workshop I attended, this was considered a major goal of collaboration — collaborating to innovate. The tools are there not for an end purpose of collaborating per se, but for the purpose of innovating. Seeking to improve your job. Connecting with colleagues, exposing ideas, building relationships, unafraid to air challenges and involve others in solutions.

The intention isn't to create an all-encompassing innovation incubator. A raft of innovative ideas would be a bonus, but the main game is getting people to buy into, and actively engage in, the process of collaboration. 

"Let’s be the best everyday innovators we can be" is a very different call to arms than "we can collaborate better." 

It positions the tools as an opportunity to improve and renew individual roles and processes at the micro, everyday level. It satisfies the "what’s in it for me" test — it’s all about empowering the individual. Of course it should be underscored by the positive impact on the organization as a whole, but the main message is that the tools are there not just to pull information from others, but to provide an opportunity for individuals to improve their own business environment.

From the Top

This goal, like any organizational vision, needs to come from the top in a way that clearly communicates two of the critical success factors: trust (I trust you to use the tools this way) and encouragement (I give you permission to spend time on this). It should come from the CEO. 

The further down the chain the message originates, the exponentially lower the impact. More than two levels down and you may as well not bother. People will already be sensing hypocrisy and believe that the leadership have no personal investment of their own in the vision. 

The trustees of the vision, though, are middle managers. Apart from constantly reiterating the message, they have to walk the talk, encouraging participation, recognizing contributions publicly and above all listening. For ideas, for feedback, for constructive criticism, always with an eye to turning suggestions into actions.

Yes, there will be reluctance, even resistance from some who dislike being told to suddenly become innovators (as they perceive it). So the message must contain this important point — by contributing to a conversation, liking someone's comment, or even just acting on someone else’s post, you gain entry to the vision and membership of the hive.

Examples of the Vision in Action: Hackathons and YamJams

Hackathons are short-term, high intensity collaboration events designed to generate innovative solutions to business challenges. They are a perfect microcosm of collaborating-to-innovate. 

Why are they successful and being adopted by organizations? Because staff invest personally in them. They are motivated to contribute, they have license to be creative, they can participate as loudly or as quietly as they like. Hierarchical differences are shelved. Most of all, participants feel they have ownership of the result. Collaborating to innovate in action.

YamJams are similar. Although the name connects them to Yammer, they can easily be replicated on other platforms. A YamJam is an online discussion around a significant business topic involving (but not led by) senior leaders who commit to be present for the couple of hours or so they usually run. YamJams, too, can generate high levels of engagement for similar reasons.

The problem, though, is that the burst of collaborative energy they generate typically falls off once they’re over. It isn’t always understood that the long game with these events isn’t generating truckloads of ideas, it’s developing a vibrant, sustainable culture of collaboration which doesn’t rely on hackathons or YamJams to produce insights and ideas daily. Used strategically, they can be a very effective way to kick off a broader, ongoing, business-endorsed vision of collaborating-to-innovate.

What's Your Vision for Collaboration?

It might be that innovation isn’t an appropriate or meaningful goal for collaboration within your own organization. Whatever that vision is, it needs to provide a sharpness of intent for the tools and elevate them to a higher business purpose directly relevant to people’s roles. 

Unsure how to determine your end vision? Try this:

  • Start with the statement, "So we can collaborate better"
  • Then ask why
  • When you have that answer, ask why again
  • When you have that answer, ask why
  • And so on, until you’ve repeated the process five times

It’s an old trick called The Five Whys and a great way to unearth the clear vision that will help motivate your people to use those great new tools you invested so heavily in.